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How to combat cognitive bias


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Aliénor Strentz - published on 06/30/21

All of us are vulnerable to biases, but we can take steps to prevent them from causing us to make mistakes.

We know the famous “complaint” of St. Paul: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”(Romans 7:18b-19). From this he deduced that he was both “a slave to the law of God” and “a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:25). Perhaps the apostle was also subject to cognitive bias!

Cognitive biases are like shortcuts our brain takes to help us make quick decisions, but they can lead us to make mistakes. We looked at biblical examples of cognitive bias in an earlier article.

While we cannot eradicate cognitive biases, we can counter their negative effects by gradually developing new habits. Here are a few ways to tame our cognitive biases.

1Study opposing opinions

It’s important to mentally distance ourselves from our convictions. We should take the time to consider ideas that nuance or oppose them. In this way, we open ourselves to other points of view that can broaden our knowledge, make us change our opinions, or further confirm us in our convictions.

It will help us to know more clearly from then on why we prefer our opinion to others that we’ve taken the time to explore and analyze. We go “to the peripheries” of our thinking, as the Holy Father asks, and in the end we gain in openness and depth of reflection.

2Practice a positive inner monologue

Our initial thoughts and emotions in reaction to things may tend to be rigid and harsh or pessimistic. For example, if we’re prone to negative interpretation bias, we may say to ourselves, “My day was a disaster!”

A more positive and constructive inner monologue, in which we ask ourselves questions and evaluate our impulsive thoughts and feelings, can lead us to see things differently and to qualify our initial statement. “Were all 24 hours of the day really that bad? What do you mean by ‘catastrophic?’”

3Develop collective thinking

One way to reduce our mental rigidity can be to develop a “decision system,” especially in contexts such as the family or the corporate world. This is what Olivier Sibony, consultant and author on the topic, proposes.

It involves setting up in advance the criteria to be met for a given decision to be taken, explicitly discussing uncertainties instead of sweeping them under the carpet, and not trusting one’s own initial opinion but presenting it to a team (or even multiple teams) who will be asked to find arguments to either defend or criticize it.

From this thoughtful and methodical collective thinking, a new, richer and less rigid way of thinking can emerge.

4Making room for doubt in our spiritual journey

In the consciousness of many Christians, doubt is often perceived negatively. Yet, if we analyze the famous “doubt” of St. Thomas about the resurrection of Christ, we can see that it led Thomas to discern what the other apostles had not yet realized or expressed: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 21:28). 

The apostle Thomas, by activating his “slow” thought system, to use the vocabulary of neuroscience—in other words, through doubt and questioning—was the first apostle to explicitly recognize the divinity of the risen Lord.

It may therefore be a good idea to slow down the rhythm of our thoughts with a little doubt, in order to gain a better spiritual discernment.

BibleMental Health

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